Pulwama: The roads leading to Pulwama town are deserted. People walk in groups. In a sudden rage, a group of protesters arrives in the middle of road from nowhere, forcibly stopping vehicles. If the passengers inside try to reason, the young protesters break loose. Within minutes, the police arrives and clashes start.
This is a common scene in this this south Kashmir town from more than week. On Thursday, the eighth day of the shutdown, an uneasy calm prevailed in the town, which is 36 kilometres from the summer capital Srinagar, but minor incidents of stone-pelting did occur throughout the day. A day earlier, the police came to people’s aid after it installed food stalls at Rajpora Chowk of the district. A large number of people thronged to these food stalls and purchased eatables including vegetables, pulses and other essential items.
The trouble began in Pulwama when residents of Chatpora, a small village in the main town, commissioned a hoarding, glorifying militants killed by security forces in recent times, for installation inside the “Martyrs' Graveyard” situated near the town's busiest square:
The hoarding is decorated with pictures of at least two dozen gun-wielding militants and portraits, majority of them locals, although foreigners also find a place. “The plan to instal this board had been around for a long time. We have got it made for Rs 20,000. Now we want to instal it in the graveyard,” Fida Hussain, a resident of Chatpora, told Firstpost.
Fresh spark inflaming passions was ignited by killing of Umais Ahmad Sheikh, a Laskar-e-Taiba (LeT) militant and a resident of Chatpora area, who was killed in an encounter with security forces in north Kashmir’s town of Bandipora on 24 December, following which the town remained shut for four days and protesters fought pitched battles with police.
Things only got worse following an encounter on 31 December in Gusso village in the same district, in which two militants, including a local, were killed. Since then,Pulwama has been observing a shutdown.
“Then we found out that people are trying to put a hoarding in the graveyard, which had pictures of local as well as foreign militants on it. We removed bases meant to hold the board” a police officer, posted in the town, told Firstpost.
“It would have become a provocative tool and people could have been attracted to joining militancy,” he added.
The strike has parlayed life and businesses, but the young boys of the area are adamant that the hoarding has to be installed. Till then, they say, the town will remain closed. “Everyday losses are in crores. The talks with the district administration have failed. The previous hoarding which was circulated on social networking sites has been changed. The new memorial board is not digital, instead a simple one with some verses of the Quran,” President of Traders Federation, Bashir Ahmad, told Firstpost.
“It has become now political. No photograph will be pasted on the board,” he adds.
Reyaz Ahmad (name changed), a resident of main town of Pulwama, sat on an elevated stand in the town square on Thursday. He says the board has been changed but even the unmarked board is not being allowed installed. “There was a poem and some versus of the Quran. Now the government, SP and DSP, they don’t even allow us to erect the unmarked board. In every district of Kashmir, there is a hoarding on the martyrs' graveyard,” he says
Despite the state government making requests to the Traders Federation to open shops and freeing the youths who were arrested in connection with stone-pelting incidents in last two weeks in the town, the shops have not opened. “In all this, people are suffering. We can’t allow putting up a memorial board in that place. The decision has to be taken by the state government,” Deputy-Commissioner of Police Pulwama, Niraj Kumar, said.
Chairman of the Hurriyat Conference, Syed Ali Geelani, says the installation of “Martyrs Memorial” at the Shaheed Park is a “genuine and logical demand” of the local people and the objection of the administration and the police in erection of this board is “unjustified and unnecessary action.”
“The Shaheed Park in Pulwama is associated with the martyrs of 1931 and since then this place has a historical importance. Our beloved youths who are sacrificing their youth for the betterment of their nation are our heroes, and they deserve to be respected and remembered in every respect. The people in Pulwama, if they want to instal a martyrs' memorial board on the entrance of the Shaheed Park, then it is a good move which should be followed by the other districts of the state,” Geelani said in a statement.
With both sides refusing to relent, the political and religious hues attached to the issue can boil down into a major crisis for the People's Democratic Party, which has a strong ground in south Kashmir. Also, the strategic location of Pulwama, which is close to the hometown of Burhan Wani, the face of 'new insurgency' in Kashmir, throws up a huge challenge for the security establishment.